Storytelling Therapy for Seniors
Storytelling with seniors provides them a way to connect with other people, rediscover the meaning of their lives, and realize other means of managing their stress or depression. While this type of senior therapy offers numerous benefits to elderly individuals, it also benefits caregivers who listen to the life stories of seniors, gaining wisdom and appreciation of life through the experiences shared to them.
Storytelling programs would usually include some form of reminiscing. According to experts, looking back on the good memories from the good old days allows seniors to reconnect with others socially, while also improving their physical and emotional well-being.
Empowering Seniors Through Storytelling
Dr. Karl Pillemer, gerontologist at Cornell University and author of 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage, shares the powerful impact that storytelling can give to seniors, “We know from research that narrating life stories can help older people resolve internal conflicts, overcome self-criticism, and improve their sense of self-worth. Particularly valuable are storytelling opportunities that allow for ‘integrative reminiscence,’ in which people tell stories about their lives that involve examining and coming to terms with issues in their past.”
Stories from over 1500 American seniors are compiled in Pillemer’s The Legacy Project. More than just encouraging seniors to share their stories, this project helps empower them as they are asked what valuable lessons they can share with the younger generations. Pillemer shares the method they used for this project, “For example, in addition to asking, ‘What did you do in World War II,’ we add the question, ‘And what did you learn from that experience that you would like to pass down to younger generations? We find that it is empowering to older people to be asked for their advice, and that makes the storytelling even more meaningful.”
Creative Storytelling as Therapy for Memory Loss
Creative storytelling stimulates the mind to remember memories. It also helps improve one’s articulation and promotes self-esteem. Aside from the benefits that storytelling offers seniors in general, healthcare professionals affirm that this type of creative therapy is especially beneficial to seniors with dementia.
Anne Basting, founder of the TimeSlips Project elaborates on how effective storytelling is, “Inevitably, storytelling is about memories, but it opens the rules to include imagination and to create something new that accepts who they are and where they are in the moment. That’s a great thing for families.” Renya Larson, a TimeSlips facilitator and the associate director of the National Center for Creative Aging in Brooklyn, New York, says the TimeSlips project is a “potent” tool for people who are in the middle to late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These individuals can no longer express themselves through conventional methods, and this therapy allows them to incorporate gestures, sounds, and facial expressions into their story.
How to Facilitate Creative Storytelling
Create the right setting. Make sure to to conduct the storytelling session in a dedicated space with no background noise. The ideal time for storytelling would be during the “magic hour” for higher cognitive functioning, which is from 9:30 am to 11:30 am or right after lunch. Have a sketchpad, bright-colored markers, and an image ready. Always maintain eye contact.
Select pictures that spark creativity. While most people may be inclined to make use of old family photos, this is not the best choice for a storytelling session. These images open the chances of having right and wrong answers, which may lead to frustration on the part of the senior. Choose images that may trigger them to remember something from their past, without forcing them to remember. Unrealistic pictures are ideal – large, colorful pictures of fictional characters or objects will help spark their creativity.
Ask the right questions. When facilitating the storytelling session, it is important to ask the right questions. Ask open-ended questions, like “What do we call this person?”, “Where are they going?”, “What could this be?”, and “What is going on here?” These questions encourage the seniors to get creative and feel comfortable answering them because there is no right or wrong answer.
Be persistent. It might take some time before your senior responds well to this therapy. So, if you see that they are not engaging as you expected on the first few days, don’t give up. You may want to invite other family members in the storytelling to help the senior feel more comfortable to share stories.
Refrain from making judgments. The storytelling process may at times induce negative responses. It could be shocking or offensive to hear perverted answers or the use sexual or bathroom language, but it is the duty of the facilitator to encourage openness so refrain from showing them any negative reactions. It is best to echo what the seniors say and move on with their story.
Integrate music. Adding music into the equation helps prompt responses even among seniors who are no longer verbal. Ask open-ended questions like, “What might he be singing?” or “What music does this character like?”
Document discreetly. Writing the story down might distract the seniors from enjoying the flow. Consider a tape recorder or having a scribe to document the session instead.
Allow inconsistencies. This type of creative storytelling therapy allows for the absence of structure and consistency. It is alright if the stories don’t make sense, if the characters’ names are changed every now and then, and if the story does not have the usual beginning, middle and end. Basting noted, “It can be scary for people to let go of literal language. But if you can follow to where the person is, you can find a whole new way to connect to your loved one.”
The Proven Benefits of Storytelling
There are many benefits associated with storytelling. For one, research has shown that storytelling helps improve an older individual’s ability to communicate. It is also instrumental in alleviating the symptoms of depression and agitation. By reminiscing their past, storytelling allows seniors to reconnect with their past and feel a renewed sense of self-worth and importance.